Earlier today, I read something that led to the question” do we even need to organize the blogs in the reverse chronological stream? Ben Werdmuller, frustrated by the design of his website’s homepage writes:
As of right now, the homepage is a mix of long-form posts, short thoughts, and links I consider interesting, presented as a stream. It’s a genuine representation of what I’m reading and thinking about, and each post’s permalink page looks fine to me, but it doesn’t quite hold together as a whole. If you look at my homepage with fresh eyes, my stream is a hodgepodge. There’s no through line.
Like Ben, I, too, feel the same way. What Ben is asking and I am echoing: are these end-days of using “stream” as a design and information organizing principle? It has been just over two decades that I have written “for” and published “to” the stream.
I started blogging back in late 2000. It was primarily technology-related blog posts — with an occasional personal blog post. As years passed, the blog became a business, and I had to set up this website as a personal homestead. Its primary function was to be a personal place — less about technology-focused writing and more about life and my obsessions.
With the company’s shutdown in 2015, this website became a catch-all for everything, including technology-focused writing, interviews, and essays. In short, the diversity of information has increased. I often wonder, am I doing too much with this one place? Does the “stream” as an organizing principle even make sense in an information-dense and diverse world?
Across the web, one can see “streams” losing their preeminence. Social networks are increasingly algorithmically organized, so their stream isn’t really a free-flowing stream. It is more like a river that has been heavily dammed. It is organized around what the machine thinks we need to see based on what we have seen in the past.
Social networks seem to have done a forensic analysis of content consumption behavior and have come to the conclusion that most of us can no longer follow the stream and make sense of what’s flowing through, or even catch what’s important. They are not wrong. As humans, our interests have become wide enough that we can at best peck at what’s flowing through.
Heavily visited large web publications such as The Verge, which found their start as “streams” are not using a non-stream-like user experience, and have found ways to combine the urgency of the stream with articles that need to stick around longer. The question is when will this flow down to individual websites, including blogs?
As an old-school blogger, I have found a lot of comfort in the stream. I felt that it was a way to showcase my whole “online being.” And that worked when people were in the habit of visiting blogs every day — even multiple times a day. These days, it is either newsletters or fly-by-visits that account for interaction on blogs. Yes, I have old faithful readers, but they too want to get the stuff emailed to them.
What do you think? Is reverse chronological “stream” still a valid design principle? or should we think differently? Leave a comment below, so I can learn from you.
January 25, 2023. San Francisco
Ever since Elon Musk took over Twitter and turned it into a tawdry reality show in which he is the star, the villain, and the comedian, everyone has been talking about a new decentralized web. New products, such as Mastodon, and new technologies, such as Activity Pub, are part of a new desire to build a new “fedeverse.” This is utopian thinking about taking the web back from the centralized web platforms.
One of my favorite bloggers, designer Lars Mensel notes:
We all feed social networks and online platforms with unprecedented amounts of data, hardly accounting for the fact everything might vanish when the ownership of a network changes (as seems likely with Twitter’s ongoing nosedive) or the business model collapses.
Mensel is right. And it makes sense that more of us should be doing it, but we don’t because, in the end, we want an easy way out. Manuel Moreale, a programmer points out:
The more I think and read about it, the more I’m convinced that there’s no solution to the centralisation issue we’re currently facing. And that’s because I think that fundamentally people are, when it comes to the internet, lazy. And gathering where everyone else is definitely seems easier. It’s also easier to delegate the job of moderating and policing to someone else and so as a result people will inevitably cluster around a few big websites, no matter what infrastructure we build. And sure, there is always going to be an independent minority that is going to do things their way but it’s just that, a minority. The rest of the internet will move along and aggregate around a few big hubs and the issues are gonna be the same.
Moreale, who has eschewed all social media services, pours a glass of cold water on the current excitement and hoopla around Mastodon, Fediverse, and the decentralization of the Internet. When reading his post, I found myself nodding my head in agreement. It is not to say that I don’t believe in decentralized Internet, and after all, the Internet’s premise was a lot of federated (interconnected) networks.
I appreciate the excitement and move away from the centralized services, but most of the excitement comes from the people who were part of the first two waves of the Internet. The newer generation of internet natives doesn’t care much about archival or permanence on the network.
Ephemeral is a concept that is more apt for describing that generation. Streaming, on-demand, and vanishing ephemeral content are their native behaviors. The rest of their social media presence is with intentionality — either to create or curate a presence much like a celebrity.
Regardless of age, the big elephant in the room is that we are certified addicts to attention.
It doesn’t matter whether it is Twitter, Instagram, or Mastodon. Everyone is playing to an audience. The social Internet is a performance theater praying at the altar of attention. Journalists need attention to be relevant, and experts need to signal their expertise. And others want to be influencers. For now, Twitter, Instagram, and their ilk give the biggest bang for the blast. It is why those vocal and active about Mastodon are still posting away on Musk’s Twitter.
If we didn’t care for attention, we wouldn’t be doing anything at all. We wouldn’t broadcast. Instead, we would socialize privately in communication with friends and peers.
Here are some of my previous writings on social media, our addiction, and why it is a problem.
Thank You, Santa Claus, for making this the best gift ever! Allbirds trend in Silicon Valley is over!
The Wall Street Journal reports, “Allbirds customers’ average annual spend has dropped by more than $31 since 2018.” Which means slowing revenue growth and increasing losses. And a primary reason, as Journal points out, is that tech bros and brogrammers have moved on from the near-ubiquitous shoe brand and its bland sneakers. “Tech bros ditching their Allbirds? It’s like tigers tossing aside their stripes,” the Journal quips.”Few fashion items are as closely associated with the coding crowd as the muted kicks from this San Francisco startup.”
Fashion is a reflection of a culture’s values and beliefs. And for most of the past decade, technology and all its symbols were part of the cultural zeitgeist. With the near ubiquity of technology, its societal impact, and the outrageousness of its leaders, Allbirds’ fading popularity symbolizes how modern society views technology and its role in culture. To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, sometimes, a shoe is not just a shoe.
For as long as I can remember, I have despised Allbirds. I felt they were tasteless and pointless. Despite popular claims, they weren’t that comfortable. Despite the founders’ claims that they were eco-friendly, the sheer lack of longevity proved it otherwise. They symbolized intellectual laziness.
Allbirds came out of nowhere and were on the feet of every brogrammer in Silicon Valley. (See Note Below) Joey Zwillinger and Tim Brown, two alumni ofwho are said to have met at Stanford Business School, launched Allbirds in March 2014 as an online-only footwear company. They launched on Kickstarter, and got early interest.Their original pitch was that their shoes would be ethically-sourced, comfortable, and made of renewable materials.
Given that virtue signaling trumps virtues in Silicon Valley, those three words were like catnip. The company at one time was valued at $1.4 billion, though these days, the air has come out of the balloon. In November 2021, it closed its first day of trading at $26-a-share. It is now trading at just south of $3-a-share, giving the company a valuation of around $395 million. Growth is slowing, and the road to profits looks bumpy as well.
Somehow, they became part of the “tech uniform” starter pack. And they were everywhere, and the joke was on me! Some of my friends trolled me by sending me those shoes; they are not on my Christmas card list.
The primary reason I hated Allbirds is that they represented an utter lack of taste. But my distaste went beyond that. To me, they are a symptom of a disease that afflicts and is ultimately going to destroy the technology industry: conformity.
Right through the mid-nineties, non-conformists dominated the technology industry. The first uniform for the valley was: no uniform. It was a place where misfits fit together. The emergence of the internet was the start of conformity. A perfect symbol of that was the Gap Khaki. Until then, a smattering of venture capitalists, their Silicon Valley bankers, and lawyers adorned the khakis. They wanted to fit into the “casual dressing” ethos of the time.
The Internet 1.0 boom attracted many tech tourists looking to cash in on the bubble. Khakis were the perfect way to look “the part” and appear to be part of the Internet crowd. It so happened that Gap was trendy during the 1990s, so it made it even more acceptable. Allbirds, in many ways, was the Khakis of this generation: arrivistes trying to pass themselves off as insiders.
Whether it was Gap Khakis, Patagonia vests, or Allbirds, the counter-cultural ethos that applauded individuality has been replaced by herd thinking. In Silicon Valley, we use a better marketing term for herd: team. One of the biggest trends of the past twenty years has been the rise of corporate swag. Wearing a Google t-shirt, an AirBnB backpack, or a logo-festooned Hydra bottle are all symbols of belonging to a herd called “work.” These logos advertised where you worked and thus gave you a place in Silicon Valley’s social hierarchy.
As the technology industry became the cultural zeitgeist, it became necessary to advertise to the world that you were part of the tech set. And the easiest way to do so was through a uniform. And I don’t mean uniform in the strictest sense, just as pinstripes and bold red suspenders were the look for traders and bankers in the heyday of Wall Street. By embracing a uniform, we are echoing being part of the tribe. Uniform is a great leveler, and it shows what team you are on. It is a symbol of power, affiliation, and hierarchy. Its underlying ethos: us versus them.
The problem is that Silicon Valley has gone completely to the other extreme. We’ve created a make-believe cult of objective meritocracy, a pseudo-scientific mythos to obscure and reinforce the belief that only people who look and talk like us are worth noticing. After making such a show of burning down the bad old rules of business, the new ones we’ve created seem pretty similar.
And more often than not, the dress cues for this uniform come from the industry’s leaders. For instance, Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed in 2014 that he wanted to minimize decision-making around dressing, which is why he preferred grey hoodies. Almost overnight, that became the uniform. Just as many wore black turtle necks favored by Steve Jobs, most forget that dressing like someone doesn’t make you them, but the fashion industry and human race work on self-delusion. And in Silicon Valley, the only thing cheaper than self-delusion is self-respect. “[Silicon Valley types typically] honor the style of their champion. It’s part of a herd mentality,” Joseph Rosenfeld, a personal stylist, told the Financial Times.
During the late 2000s, I would often be on stage during my conferences. Around that time, I had a penchant for weird, whimsical socks. I found them an amusing way to add a personal touch to my daily outfits. They were a way for me to signal my mood for the day. Onstage, when I was interviewing super VC Michael Mortiz, we talked more about socks than other weighty topics. A year or so later, I saw others wearing such socks, and it became a trend. The New York Times wrote about it. So much so that ‘whimsical socks’ became part of the corporate swag. Everyone missed the point of the “whimsical socks” and the need for individuality. By the way, logos on colorful socks are a tasteless trend surpassed only by Allbirds.
Allbirds were just another version of that herd thinking. “The initial idea of Allbirds was all about the reduction of the shoe down to its simplest form, which is the opposite of the streetwear model, with small changes and a million different models,” co-founder Tim Brown told the Glossy. Using public relations and hype that could only be generated on social media platforms, Allbirds became a thing for the tech set. As a cynic, the simplified product was also ideal for the “direct-to-consumer revolution” that would allow Allbirds to eschew expensive real estate investments needed to sell sneakers. I will give Allbirds this: they nailed the DTC model perfectly by going after the most obvious buyer: the newly minted tech-bro.
A lot has changed since the mid-2010s. Tech is no longer the beloved child. It has become a four-letter word. As a startup founder told the WSJ, “It’s certainly less desirable to be so openly identified…as working in tech.” This quote sums up everything about the tech industry, which has gone from aspirational to abhorrent. Allbirds are a perfect totem of that transition.
As I said, sometimes, a shoe is not just a shoe.
December 26, 2022. San Francisco
Update: I incorrectly noted that the two founders were GSB alumni. Tim Brown attended London School of Economics & Joey Zwillinger attended Wharton. They met through mutual connections according to some published accounts. Twitter friend David Klein brought my error to my attention.
No matter how often this happens, we don’t learn our lessons — we continue to till other people’s proverbial land and keep using their social spaces. Whether it is Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, or Medium, we get trapped in the big platforms because they dangle the one big carrot in front of our eyes: the reach, the audience, and the influence.
And we keep doing their bidding — they use our social networks, our work, and our attention — and, in the process, help make their networks gigantic and indispensable. We become pawns in their end game. And then they change the rules of the game — after all, if you own the league, you make the rules.
I have known the truth about social platforms. I quit Facebook and Instagram years ago, and candidly I am better for it. I don’t need 5000 friends — 15 good ones will do. And as far as sharing photos — I am happy that I have about a thousand people interested in my photographic work instead of 100,000 followers on Instagram. You, too, can sign-up for my photo newsletter here.
I have not quit Twitter for sentimental reasons. I sent out the first non-Twitter tweet and kinship with Jack. Even as the platform became unusable, I still stayed. I started using Twitter less. If I don’t visit today or tomorrow, my world doesn’t stop. So perhaps that is why I am not as distressed as others who are mourning about the future of the service.
By now, you probably know a megalomaniacal space cowboy has acquired Twitter. You have to pay $8 a month to use the service in any meaningful way, though I won’t bet on it being either meaningful or it working. The new owner is known to change his mind about anything and everything. Given this uncertainty about Twitter, it makes more sense for me to focus on using the newsletter as a central point for all my editorial work and everything else.
Going forward, I will aggregate what I usually share on Twitter, including links to interesting articles in an (almost) daily newsletter. You will likely experience the newsletter at a higher-than-usual frequency, but no promises. I will leave the comments open if you want to share feedback or engage in conversation.
If you aren’t signed up for the newsletter — it is straightforward. Enter your email address in the form below, hit submit, and then allow the email newsletter in your inbox. I hope we can build something together.
PS: If you follow this blog via WordPress, then you don’t have to do anything. It will just show up as every other post.
November 15, 2022. San Francisco
My Essential Twitter Reader
Here are some of my articles about Twitter. My long history with the company gives me a good insight into the company, which has and will continue to remain ungoverned. It is a service by the people, for the people, and one of its people with the most money now owns it. It is somewhat ironic and befitting.
I have been busy researching two long pieces, which have my mind going in many directions. I need to calm down and start writing. But up until then, enjoy these random bits I have accumulated on my blotter. They are bits of data, quotable quotes, and stuff worth reading. And just me thinking out loud. … Continue reading TikTok, New York Times, Charlatans & the Nobel Prizes
Letter from Om
A (nearly) daily dispatch about tech & future.
You will get my reporting, analysis, conversations, and curation of the essential information you need to make sense of the present future.